Bugwoman at 60

Swamp cypress at the Cleary Garden in the City of London. My favourite tree (as it’s my birthday 🙂 )

Dear Readers, on Monday I was 60 years old. Even typing those words makes me feel a bit strange, because last time I looked I was 39. Where have the past twenty years gone? My Mum used to say that, inside, she was still a fresh-faced girl of 25, hurrying off to work. Maybe we are just like Russian dolls, with all our previous selves buried but still present.

On Monday morning, at about 5 a.m., I awoke with a start. It was as if someone had bellowed into my ear. “What have you achieved?” it shouted. Well, I don’t know what I’ve achieved exactly, but here, in no particular order, are some things that I’ve learned over the past six decades.

Dundee Cyrenians, where I worked as a night shelter worker.

Firstly, my time in the night shelter at Dundee taught me that it is possible for anyone to slip through the net and into poverty, addiction and homelessness. One of the men  I knew had lost his dear wife, drowned in a lake in Scotland, and he had never been able to settle since. Some of the younger men had been turfed out of the care system when they reached 18, and were ill-equipped to deal with life outside an institution. Some men had been in the army, and were addicted to the adrenaline-buzz of being on active service. Others had aged out of the services, and their drinking, formerly under some sort of control, had become pathological. Some suffered from (lack of) Care in the Community. Wullie and Bobbie were both in their seventies but looked much older. One walked with two sticks, the other tottered along with arthritis in his feet. Both had dementia. Both were incontinent. Both were alcoholics. No care home would take them, so they slept in the shelter, when they weren’t in the police cells.

Of course, now I think about my own dad. If he hadn’t had the resources for a care home, and someone to look after his interests, where would he have ended up?

I am sure that those men that I drank tea with and  laughed with at the shelter are now dead, but I remember them  vividly. You can tell a lot about a society by who is excluded and these people were invisible then, as their counterparts are largely invisible now. The net is fragile, and often breaks, and there is no limit to how far people can fall if there is no one to catch them. So the shelter taught me to be aware that what I had was as much a result of luck as anything else: luck in my parents, in my financial situation, in the resources that were there to support me when things went wrong. It wasn’t that I was any better than the guys in the shelter. I had simply been luckier.

A young vixen in St Pancras and Islington cemetery. My favourite British wild mammal.

And then, in my thirties, I became immobilised with depression and anxiety. It crept up on me slowly, and then pounced. Everything slowed down, until it was taking me two hours to get up in the morning. The only emotions I knew were terror and despair. I was doing a very demanding job for a national drug and alcohol charity, and was managing an IT implementation, and I knew that I was failing. People would ring me up, and I couldn’t understand what they were saying – it was if they were speaking in a different language. It took me nearly six months to get back to work, but it was the most important experience of my life, because I learned that I was not invincible. And I learned that the people around me at work and at home were more than willing to help me, if I would only let them. I didn’t have to do everything on my own, and I needed to drop the perfectionism. Perfectionism is just a misplaced and ultimately flawed attempt to control the uncontrollable, a kind of strange grandiosity that does nothing but hurt the person who suffers from it. Sometimes, good enough really is good enough.

Fledgling long-tailed tits. Possibly my favourite British bird (though there is lots of competition)

In my forties, I started to write, tentatively at first, and then obsessively. Mum was always such a cheerleader for my writing – when I was clearing out the bungalow after she died, I found everything I’d ever written lovingly tucked away in a file tied up with a yellow ribbon. She wanted me to express myself through my writing, just as she had through her paintings. I still have her last sketchbook, full of watercolour sketches of cats that she’d copied from a calendar. The creative spark was so strong in her, and I know that I have it too. Writing brings me such joy, and I am learning to prioritise it, largely through the blog, but in other ways too. Because something else that I’ve learned is that, when we die, all our creative projects go with us, all those paintings unpainted, those poems unwritten. Our creativity is not only the way that we express ourselves, but the way that we reach out and connect with others. We owe it to everyone to not be shy about these things.

My mum. One of my favourite humans, then, now and for always

In my fifties, I learned about love. It isn’t, as I had previously thought, about what you feel, though it’s a wonderful emotion. Love is about what you do, especially when you aren’t feeling loving. It’s about what you do when your head aches, and your back is breaking, and your mother has fallen out of bed again. It’s about mopping up vomit and blood, and making a cup of tea, and re-making the bed for the third time in six hours. It’s about fighting down the terror when your dad announces that the bungalow that he’s been living in for the past fifteen years is somewhere that he’s never been before. It’s sitting by your mother’s bedside and hearing her breathe, and then hearing her stop. It’s about washing and dressing your dead mother in her favourite clothes and opening the window so that her spirit can finally fly free. And it’s about acknowledging that you have lost something that you will never find again, and carrying on anyway, because it’s what she would have wanted.

Dad aka Captain Tom. Another of my favourite humans.

So here I am, at sixty, squinting into the future and wondering what the next years will hold. One thing I do know is that Mum and Dad will always be a part of the life that I build, because, after all, they built me. And it seems to me that there’s much to be said for making as many connections, human, animal and plant, as possible. The most important thing that I’ve learned is that we all part of something much bigger, and that none of us can make it on our own. I am so grateful for my larger community, for the support, advice and care that I’ve been given for my first sixty years. I hope I can give some of it back in the years that remain.

Another handsome fox. Just because….


37 thoughts on “Bugwoman at 60

  1. gertloveday

    Happy Birthday Dear Bugwoman. Your blog is always a wonderful treat. It cheered me when I turned 60 from my bird observing, bushwalking aunt,’ i was at my PEAK when I was I was in my sixties.’ You remind me of her in your passionate interest in life.

  2. Leonie

    Happy birthday dear bug woman
    I’m so grateful of your writings on dementia they gave me such solace with my parents ,as both had dementia . Both now departed . You captured so much . I forward your posts to friend who are now facing that realm . As marvellous helpful practical whimsy observations . Thank you . Please carry on .

    1. Bug Woman

      Thank you Leonie! Since I started writing about Dad I have ‘met’ so many people online who are either going through the same thing, or who know people who are….we are not alone in these situations, though it sometimes feels as if we are. Sending love to you and your friend xxx

  3. Alittlebitoutoffocus

    Beautifully written, as always, Vivienne. You’ve obviously had an interesting and varied life. Do not worry, 60 is the new 40, so you were indeed 39 on Sunday (when possibly you last looked). 😊 We’ve had quite a few long-tailed tits in our garden this past few weeks, as well as about a dozen goldfinches and two crested tits. All very beautiful. I’ll try to capture a picture for your birthday! Belated best wishes.

  4. ravenhare

    Happy birthday to you, you wonderful, kind and compassionate human being. It’s so lovely to read your assessment of your years and what you’ve learned through the time. It’s important to think back and realise when luck has, and hasn’t been on your side. It makes us stronger for the experiences, I’m certain. I’m so glad that you write. It’s such an open, honest flow of words. Take care, and may life always be kind to you. xx

    1. Bug Woman

      Thank you, ravenhare…there’s something about a new decade of life that has always encouraged me to consider what has and hasn’t served me. Life is such a mixture of luck and misfortune, wise decisions and silly mistakes. It’s how we learn from it that’s important, I think. May life be kind to you going forward, too, I know you’ve had a difficult year xx

  5. Rhianwen Guthrie

    A very happy birthday to you, Bugwoman…
    Long may you continue writing your beautiful, intelligent, compassionate blog.
    Best wishes,

  6. marla

    Nicely said. Your statement about perfection being an attempt to control the uncontrollable is so right on! I never looked at in from that angle but it really opened a window for me. Thank you. And happy belated birthday!

    1. Bug Woman

      Thank you, Marla! Yes, for years I thought that being a perfectionist was a good thing, but I now think that it does a lot of damage. We can be recovering perfectionists together 🙂

  7. Gail

    Happy birthday and very many happy, long tailed tit filled returns too. Thank you for sharing all your life and thoughts so beautifully.

  8. sllgatsby

    What lovely sentiments to wake up to here in Seattle. I will be 55 in a couple of months and hope I can face it with as much equanimity and intelligence as you show here. I do find that people who have worked as carers are some of the best people I know, so I’m not surprised to hear that’s part of your history.

    Thank you for sharing your writing and your passion for life and for others, plant, animal, and human.

    1. Bug Woman

      Thank you sllgatsby, and happy birthday to you in advance – 55 is in many ways a great age when at last you can reclaim yourself. I’m so glad that you enjoy the blog, and thank you for commenting!

  9. Anne

    Oh happy sixties! I loved turning sixty – it is liberating in so many ways – and I hope you will too. I thoroughly enjoy your blogs and often wish I could chat to you over a cup of tea. This is a wonderfully thought-provoking piece.

      1. Bobbie Jean

        Good. Soft tears. Thinking of my mom a lot lately. Missing her. I look so much like her. Sometimes I glimpse my reflection in a mirror and am taken aback. It’s funny because she tased over a year ago.

  10. Sarah

    Happy Birthday! And thank you for your blog, which I always enjoy reading. If any of your other writing is available to the public please do share links, I would love to read it.

    1. Bug Woman

      Thanks Sarah! I used to write for a journal called Earthlines, which is now sadly defunct, but I don’t think any of it is online sadly. I shall keep you posted…

  11. Bobbie Jean

    I’m sorry. Was so caught up I let my emotions run away with me and I forgot to wish you a happy birthday! Happy birthday! Hope there was cake, friends and family to celebrate with, and many presents.

    I still have your gift. Where shall I send it?

    Be well.

  12. Alyson

    Belated happy birthday. In a few months time I’ll be celebrating the same landmark and seem to have lived a bit of a parallel life, for much of the last three decades anyway. Not much wonder I found your blog and warm to your writing so much. Here’s to (hopefully) the next three decades – Keep on enjoying what nature (and life) throws at us. Lots of negativity around at the moment about the future but I have high hopes that humanity will come through in the end.

  13. Liz Norbury

    Welcome to the 60 Club, from a fairly new member! I was awake early on my birthday, too, and enjoyed a pre-breakfast outdoor swim in glorious sunshine. Not such an attractive proposition if your birthday falls in mid-January, but I hope the sun shone for you, and that 2020 brings you many new connections, whether human, animal or plant. So much of what you’ve written in this post has struck a chord, reminding me to appreciate kindness and good fortune, and not to neglect creative projects. I loved your image of us all as Russian dolls, carrying our past selves inside us. I’ve been talking to a new resident at my mum’s care home, who was a fashion designer in the 1950s, and I was captivated by the bold and brilliant designs in her portfolio. Suddenly, I saw in her the talented, elegant young woman of more than 60 years ago.

  14. Toffeeapple

    I am so sorry to have missed greeting you for your Birthday, I have been elsewhere but I am back now. I enjoyed reading this blog, it reminds me that I, too, have not stopped learning even at 73 and meeting wonderful people when one least expects to.

    1. Bug Woman

      Thank you Toffeeapple! I think being curious about the world and the creatures and people in it is the very best way to stay young, in heart and mind if not always in body 🙂

  15. Rachel McAlpine

    I empathize with your acknowledgement of your parents. More and more I know that I need them and am them in some deep sense. Feels good. Enjoy your 60s and don’t peak too soon 😊

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